How a small coffee shop begun in the ruins of Hurricane Katrina became a community mainstay of goodness.
- by Lisa Monti and Ellis Anderson
The sign’s perky phrase became something of a town mantra in the ’80s and ’90s, when Serenity Art Gallery was the hub that attracted artists and art lovers from around the county. The gallery’s gone now, but the Mockingbird Café is proud to carry that optimistic torch into the future.
Café founder/owner Alicein W. Schwabacher grew up seeing that sign and watching Serenity Gallery’s owner, the late Jerry Dixon, set the hospitality bar high. Dixon warmly welcomed all comers to Bay St. Louis, doing his best to make them feel at home.
Many of those visitors felt so at home, they eventually moved to Bay St. Louis. The town became known as one of the best small art towns in the country, written up in repeatedly in national publications.
In 2006, when Alicein and former husband Martin Chambers opened the Mockingbird Café in the midst of post-Katrina clean-up and construction, she drew on her early experiences at Serenity Gallery. Suddenly lots of wonderful things began happening in the middle of the still devastated landscape.
In addition to its coffeehouse menu, the café offered comfort and camaraderie – and working internet. Survivors met and compared stories and reconnected with hugs and tears and laughter. The café quickly became known as the town’s “living room.”
It also became a hub for visiting journalists from around the world, all curious to see how a devastated small community could make a comeback. The positivity and resilience they found emanating from the Mockingbird was a compelling and powerful story, one that spread internationally and slowly began attracting new businesses and residents from elsewhere. Volunteers who found a community touchstone at the ’Bird sometimes relocated to the coast.
“We’re happy we’ve made it through,” said Alicein. “And most of our people are still with us. We are so honored to be part of our community family.”
The Mockingbird Café is still a media darling, only now the stories have nothing to do with disaster recovery. The spotlight is on the ambiance and the quality of the food served up. At least once or twice each month, the Bay receives priceless positive publicity because of the Mockingbird.
For instance, when World Atlas recently named Bay St. Louis one of the Nine Most Charming Towns in Mississippi, they pointed to the Mockingbird as an example of why the town made the list. There's the September shout-out in NOLA Eater. The enthusiastic September profile in Only In Your State. And the Best Things just named the café as one of the nine Best Breakfast spots in the state.
It’s easy to see why, with customer favorites like delectable homemade biscuits and jams, pulled pork and grits and of course, chicken and waffles.
And now, after 16 years serving as the town’s living room, the cafe has been open long enough that customers who first visited as kids are coming in on dates.
“So many people have fallen in love at the Mockingbird,” Alicein said. “Lots of couples want to celebrate their connections to family and community here at the ’Bird.”
And some of those couples who have married have turned to the café for their special celebrations.
“Many are having their rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions here,” Alicein said. “The new outdoor spaces lend themselves to that beautifully.”
The café, with its three-sided porch, has always maintained a vibrant inside-outside persona. But when Hurricane Zeta tore through the town in October 2020 and took out some trees on the property, Alicein used the newly-vacated space for a covered stage and seating area. Now even more customers can enjoy their beverage, breakfast or brunch in an outdoor setting.
Since the café is open most days from 7 am till 2 pm, on most evenings it’s available as a venue for special events and parties for up to 175 people.
“It’s terrific,” Alicein said of the seating on the north and south sides of the historic building that houses the Mockingbird. The south side is now pet-friendly, a nice feature for customers out walking their dogs, she said.
“Our thanks go to Allison and John Anderson at Unabridged Architecture for the outdoor space design,” she said.
Alicein also sends her thanks to the “rock star management team” that keeps the Mockingbird running smoothly. General magager Laura Hurt and operations manager Whitney LaFrance have been mainstays since the opening of the café. The “amazing kitchen team,” headed by Robyn Hayes and Ari Riggs, serve up consistent quality despite peak time crowds.
The menu is always getting tweaked to keep up with local favorites and fresh ingredients. For instance, with cooler weather here and holidays approaching, the Mockingbird has brought back one seasonal favorite: pumpkin spice latte, made with real pumpkin, spices and simple syrup.
“Longtime customers will also be happy we now have additional parking available,” said Alicein.
Although there have been menu changes and new construction through the years, one thing has remained the same – the focus on community.
“We treasure our place as the town’s living room,” Alicein said. “The focus of our entire team is to make everyone feel welcome.
“After all, something wonderful is always happening at the Mockingbird Café and Bay St. Louis.”
110 South Second Street, Bay St. Louis
Daily 7 am to 2 pm
Later for special events
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